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August 27, 2009

Prospectus Today

No Joy in Wrigleyville?

by Joe Sheehan

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I get that it's actually something of a criticism of the park for many, but I never feel so much like I'm at a neighborhood gathering as I do when I'm at Wrigley Field. It just seems like the people in the crowd know each other more than at other parks, and that this is something everyone in the community does, goes to the ballpark and cheers on the Cubs, and sings "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and, hopefully, "Go Cubs Go." It's not something I can, or care to, quantify, but it was the dominant impression I was left with leaving the park last night.

I just had fun. No ballpark will ever have the effect on me that Yankee Stadium II did, but of the others, Wrigley Field is my favorite. Even on a damp, cool night that featured one of the worst teams in baseball playing one of the biggest disappointments in the game, with a heaping helping of Livan Hernandez added, being there was fun. Even when it was raining in the ninth inning and Carlos Marmol was walking the park and doing the near-impossible-making Cubs fans look longingly at Kevin Gregg-it was fun.

The game was actually competitive for seven and a half innings, in part because the Cubs couldn't get to Hernandez. The game was very reminiscent of Game Three of the 2007 National League Division Series, when Hernandez allowed 10 baserunners but just one run over six innings as the Diamondbacks eliminated the Cubs. That night, Hernandez allowed the leadoff batter to reach in four of six innings and basically pitched from the stretch the entire night. The Cubs were constantly one swing from a huge inning for most of the night, and never got it. They hit into three double plays and routinely jumped at a pitcher who was best handled by sitting back and waiting for strikes.

Last night was much of the same, although the results were better for the Cubs, who got to the Nationals' bullpen for seven runs after Hernandez was taken out of the game. Prior to that, though, the Cubs had the leadoff man on in three of six frames, but scored only on a two-run homer by Milton Bradley. Hernandez worked into and out of trouble in the fourth and sixth, helped in the latter by early-count outs by Kosuke Fukudome and Jeff Baker. Beating Hernandez isn't that difficult, you simply have to wait him out and make him put balls in the strike zone. The Cubs didn't do enough of that last night.

Of course, that's the story of the season for the Cubs, who have failed to score enough runs to contend. They're 10th in the NL in runs and 12th in EqA. They're in the middle of the pack in OBP, SLG, doubles, and walks. They're also middle of the pack, more or less, in various categories of batted balls. They hit homers-134, tied for fourth in the league-which makes up for the fact that they don't hit for average at all, they hold just a .255 mark. They're awful on the basepaths, last in both steals and stolen-base percentage, which costs them a few runs. Mostly, it's a mediocre team dealing with the comedown from big 2008 seasons that haven't been repeated: Geovany Soto and Mike Fontenot fell off dramatically; Aramis Ramirez has played about as well, but has missed 70 games; Alfonso Soriano has continued his decline.

It's not the rotation. Even with the absence and ineffectiveness of Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs have an above-average rotation, featuring a still-healthy Rich Harden and a surprising rookie in Randy Wells. The bullpen hasn't been quite as good, with Gregg famously giving up a series of key home runs and a total of 12 in just 58 1/3 innings. Entrusting him with a key role was a front-office misjudgment. Marmol has an incredible arm, but simply hasn't thrown enough strikes to be a high-leverage guy; he's walked a ridiculous 52 men unintentionally in 59 1/3 innings, and angered the 15,000 or so left in the park last night with his display of wildness. Only Angel Guzman has been consistently effective. The bullpen has been the team's weak spot all season long, and you could argue that Hendry's failed imports-Aaron Heilman and Luis Vizcaino on top of Gregg-are the biggest reason why.

Here's where it gets complicated, though. Hendry worked last winter through an unusual situation, with the Cubs in the process of being sold and a lack of clarity as to who was approving expenditures. I'm not going to defend what Hendry did, which also includes trading Mark DeRosa for budgetary reasons and allowing Kerry Wood to leave, but you have to consider the context in which he made his decisions. There was no one to approve even minor additions to the payroll in an offseason where the market made a lot of talent available cheaply, and he was under significant pressure, in fact, to not add to payroll. It's unusual to talk like this about a high-revenue team, a national brand, like the Cubs, but the endless process of selling the franchise tied Hendry's hands a year ago. This team could have afforded a Juan Cruz, an Orlando Hudson, and having players like that would have made a big difference. Just keeping DeRosa while making the other moves would have helped, but to sign Bradley, Hendry had to cut payroll.

Even with all of this, the Cubs are in line to win 84 games or so, which means they'd be off expectations by about three to five games. They're being hurt by their own mediocre performance, but also by the Cardinals' fantastic season. The Cards have gotten 22 starts from Chris Carpenter, a career-altering year by Joel Pineiro, and have made three in-season position-player pickups that made them about four wins better in total. If the Cubs were 63-61 and everyone else was playing to expectation, they wouldn't look as bad. The Cardinals' exceptional performance, on the field and off, has taken away the Cubs' cushion and raised the bar in the NL Central.

The Cubs have been disappointing, but as with the Mets, they can point to some extenuating circumstances. Though not as brutal and obvious as the Mets' string of injuries to every one of their best players, the Cubs have been hampered for nearly two years by the ongoing sale of their franchise. That hindrance finally caught up to them this season, as the players they brought in performed poorly and the ones they carried over failed to play to expectations. There's no need to overreact to this season's disappointment. The new ownership can address the team's woes merely by allowing Hendry to do his job this offseason.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Cubs,  The Who,  The Process,  Angel Hernandez

29 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Lou Doench

"but I never feel so much like I’m at a neighborhood gathering as I do when I’m at Wrigley Field."

We could have had something like that in Cincy, but we decided to build the Gap next to a giant hole in the ground by the river.

Aug 27, 2009 16:22 PM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

"the Cubs have been hampered for nearly two years by the ongoing sale of their franchise."

Joe, you obviously didn't listen to any talk radio while in town, as this view (also thrown out by Lou Pinella) is being lampooned on a daily basis.

Take a look at that OF (Sosa, Fukedome, Bradley) and it's hard to make an arguement that any more available money would have been spent wisely.

Aug 27, 2009 16:44 PM
rating: -2
 
Sacramento

I hadn't heard the Cubs invited back Sammy Sosa. Alfonso Soriano on the other hand...

Aug 27, 2009 16:51 PM
rating: 4
 
Scherer

A generally fair accounting, but with one glaring omission. The decision to sign Bradley, compounded by the residual impact on other personnel decisions as you outline, was disastrous. Yes, Hendry was in something of a box, which makes staking the season to an over-priced cipher like Bradley more, not less, damning.

Aug 27, 2009 17:56 PM
rating: 2
 
eighteen

Hendry didn't have to cut payroll to sign Bradley. He had to cut payroll to sign Bradley to a ridiculous contract - on top of all the other ridiculous contracts Hendry's responsible for.

Oh, and Wrigley Field's a dump.

Aug 27, 2009 18:06 PM
rating: -2
 
sbnirish77

Wrigley is a dump if you spend most of the game under the stands instead of in your seats watching the game ... unfortunately that's where about 30% of fans in some stadiums spend their time

Aug 27, 2009 18:20 PM
rating: 3
 
Richard Bergstrom

Hey, don't knock the smoking sections!

Aug 27, 2009 19:35 PM
rating: 0
 
Llarry

One of the best fan experiences I've ever had was attending a game at Wrigley. It was a cold rainy June afternoon in 2004 and the Cubs blew out the Cardinals. Dusty tried to blow out Zambrano's arm, sending him back out for one more inning after 95 pitches and a 12-4 lead. I had a ticket way up high down the right field line, but the fans around me were great. A few families, including kids with scorecards. I had my scorebook and the guy behind me kept asking me questions (like how many pitches last inning, how many deep counts, etc -- *good* questions). I'm not a Cubs fan, but I was for that day...

Aug 27, 2009 18:16 PM
rating: 2
 
Dismal

Joe criticized the Bradley signing when it occurred; it's generous of him to not pile on now with the benefit of hindsight. As a sad Cubs fan, it seemed to me that Soriano had more of a collapse-into-black-hole year than a continued-his-decline year.

Aug 27, 2009 18:52 PM
rating: 5
 
Richard Bergstrom

The Cubs used up their "savings" from letting DeRosa and Wood go by whittling it away on a bunch of mediocre players like Miles, Heilman, Gregg, etc. Bradley might've been an expensive ticket and a relative bust, but all that nickel-and-diming also added up.

Aug 27, 2009 19:37 PM
rating: 1
 
OTSgamer

I generally love the stuff Joe, and this one as well to be sure -- great stuff about Wrigley, and I share the sentiments completely -- but I must say that I just find the whole fiscally restrained Hendry bit a tad ridiculous. He was able to find 30 million dollars laying around to give to Milton Bradley, and it's hard to play the short pockets gambit when you have that much money to give out.

Now, to be sure, I'm sure Hendry was on a very short fiscal leash after the Bradley signing, but that still doesn't change the fact that the Bradley signing itself was a total bust, and it does mean that had he not wasted so much money there, he could have easily made many of the other moves that you talked about. Just take DeRosa, he's only making 5.5 million this year, barely half of what the Cubs had to shell out to Bradley this year (5 million base plus a 4 million signing bonus). They could have just as easily retained DeRosa, let Bradley go be a flameout elsewhere, saved 4 million dollars this year, and then have an extra 21 million dollars laying around for 2010 and 2011.

That's not a problem of tight budgets, but one of bad decision making in the front office. That's not to say that finances haven't hurt the Cubs, but the real problem they face is that the core is aging, the free agent signings haven't really lived up to expectations, and Hendry and company have drafted and developed talent so poorly in recent years that it's not enough to offset the difference of the inevitable decline by the core players.

Admittedly, though, you are right about the Cardinals. Their unexpected surge has really taken it hard to the Cubs.

Aug 27, 2009 23:14 PM
rating: 6
 
marshaja

While the sale of the team may have had something to do with it, it's way too much of a crutch to cover up absolutely horrid moves by Hendry over the offseason.

Also not being able to afford DeRosa is a crock with or without the Bradley signing.

Kevin Gregg - $4.2M
Aaron Miles - $2.2M
Aaron Heilman - $1.6M
Chad Gaudin - $1.6M
Luis Vizcaino - $3.2M
Total - $12.8M

I just afforded two DeRosa's by eliminating worthless offseason moves, two of whom aren't even on the team anyway. Not to mention trading away a cost-controlled Wuertz who is better than any bullpen option listed above.

The funny thing is signing Bradley was probably the best move Hendry made this offseason which is very damning. I'm not really sure why he was so hyped. He's stayed fairly healthy delivered a solid OBP and played an acceptable right field. I still don't like the signing, but all the little things above were much more detrimental than Bradley to this year's disaster and worse yet none of the failures were really surprising given the personnel involved.

Aug 28, 2009 03:57 AM
rating: 3
 
Bill N

Vizcaino was acquried in a trade.

Aug 28, 2009 07:50 AM
rating: -2
 
Flynnbot

yeah but they cut him and are just eating his contract

Aug 28, 2009 09:27 AM
rating: 0
 
buddaley

I am not a Cubs fan, but Wrigley is my favorite ballpark because it is filled with baseball sounds instead of scoreboard noise. Between pitches and innings, you can talk baseball instead of shouting over blaring announcements and amusement park games.

Aug 28, 2009 06:32 AM
rating: 6
 
husier
(90)

Bradley has been a disappointment, but he's hardly the Cubs' biggest blowup. Miles, Fontenot, Gregg, Heilman and Soto have done far more damage.

It was already evident that the window of opportunity was closing fast fo this team after last season. What's left now is an old team with several unmoveable contracts, and Hendry is largely responsible for that. He had a horrible offseason ... I don't see how turning him loose now is going to fix things.

Aug 28, 2009 06:38 AM
rating: 0
 
Edwincnelson

I've been a Cubs fan my entire life and followed the team on a daily basis for about 30 years, and although some may have done things differently I can't say I am upset with the way the team is being run.

Hendry was given a load of cash and a simple goal...Win NOW. He took the money and built the best team he could with the free agents that were available, basically stretched his budget to the breaking point, and then, well, they just didn't win. Last year was easily their best chance with career years from several players who were completely unlikely to ever repeat those performances. They had the talent and it just didn't happen.

However, Hendry tried. He tried to shoot the moon and fell short. As a Cubs fan I can at least appreciate the effort. Now it's time to suffer through what will be a very painful rebuilding process. It's better to have tried and failed then to never have tried at all (which is what we've been used to).

Aug 28, 2009 08:19 AM
rating: 0
 
eighteen

This is why the Cubs haven't won a Series in 100 years.

Aug 28, 2009 10:33 AM
rating: 0
 
zambrano

Last night I saw Milton Bradley crying in the drive thru at Taco Bell. I belive the kid working there (typical Cubs fan) intentionally gave him the incorrect order.

Aug 28, 2009 08:50 AM
rating: 1
 
ChuckR

You had me up to the last line - Wrigley and the surrounding neighborhood is still wonderful. However, 'letting Hendry do his job' has saddled the team with some of the most indefensible and un-tradeable contracts in all baseball. And its going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.

Aug 28, 2009 09:14 AM
rating: 1
 
Flynnbot

I think you're REALLY letting Hendry off the hook in general, and in specific for the Bradley deal. He could have had Adam Dunn, who is far more of a consistent (and healthy) hitter than Bradley, for one rather cheap year. He could have had Hudson for one year. He instead overpaid for a guy who has been hurt his whole career (mental issues notwithstanding) and he also gave a multi-year deal to the terrible Aaron Miles to fill in DeRosa's spot. Luis Vizcaino is getting paid to not be a Cub.

Aug 28, 2009 09:21 AM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

Dunn could not play LF with Soriano there and we all saw what Dunn looked like in RF in the WBC.

Aug 28, 2009 11:20 AM
rating: 0
 
Edwincnelson

Dunn could have easily hit .220 like he is prone to do, and racked up 30 of his 40 homers in blowout games against the worst pitchers, and then we would be complaining about that. If someone had told you that Bradley's slugging percentage was going to be this bad, at the end of last year, you would have thought he was crazy.

Bradley hasn't been that bad. His OBP has been hovering around .400 and that has its uses. Again, if you try and fail I can at least appreciate giving the team a chance.

I can clearly remember a time when putting a winning team on the field was never even a consideration. The stands were 1/2 empty, and no one was even thinking playoffs. At least people are expecting to win now. That, in and of itself, represents a change in the culture, and as a fan that's a welcome change.

Aug 28, 2009 11:54 AM
rating: -2
 
Richard Bergstrom

For all of Hendry's faults, please realize the Cubs have been to the playoffs in the last decade more than they have in the last 40+ years. Each GM has their strengths and weaknesses, and he's done some really silly things, especially this offseason and when Baker was around. Yet, he should get a little bit of credit for producing a team that's given Cubs fans some hope in recent years.

I hate to draw this kind of analogy, but Cubs fans are starting to sound like Broncos fans. They had a playoff team but didn't like Jake Plummer so they booed him out, then they got tired of Shanahan and Cutler. We should be at least a little bit grateful that the Cubs haven't performed like the Mets, for example...

Aug 28, 2009 20:06 PM
rating: 0
 
husier
(90)

They've been to the playoffs more often, thanks to three divisions and the wild card. Heck, twice as many teams make the postseason than did for most of my time as a baseball fan.

Aug 29, 2009 09:52 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

In the Cubs case, the extra divisions probablly help things out more by thinning the opposition. That being said other big market teams haven't had as many playoff appearances as the Cubs, like the Mets, Orioles, Dodgers, etc. So, I'm not in the mood to lynch Pinella or Hendry just yet.

Aug 29, 2009 20:06 PM
rating: 0
 
drmboat
(754)

I thought Wrigley was a nice place to watch a day game, and I agree about the nice neighborhood feel. But do we really need something like 5 first-pitches for a Friday afternoon game?

Aug 28, 2009 22:09 PM
rating: 0
 
ZeusIsLoose

Joe's right that there's no reason to overreact, but I'm sure that's coming.

Milton Bradley should be brought back. His first half was awful. So was Moises Alou's first half as a cub in 2002, and he was brought back and did better the next two. Way too much is being written/talked about locally about his personality.

There also seems to be a huge trade carlos zambrano uprising in the media.

Hopefully Hendry caves on neither one, because no team gets better by giving talent away freely, or even paying for that talent to play elsewhere.

The cubs had a down year. Soto cratered. Fontenot turned into a pumpkin. Aaron Miles made me long for Neifi Perez' power. Aramis Ramirez missed a ton of time.

Lilly, Dempster, Zambrano and Harden all spent time on the DL. Marmol has been wilder than Nick Nolte's mugshot hair, Gregg served up taters like a prison chef.

Still, I've been a cub fan for a long time, years like this (as recently as 2006) usually ended up with about 95 losses. Hopefully it's progress to have a down year end up with 84 or 85 wins.

And with a new owner in place, hopefully they find someone for the end of the pen, and bring back the rest of the team.

Except Aaron Miles. Please spare me another Aaron Miles at bat.



Aug 31, 2009 08:09 AM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

I hope you like this years Cub team because with those contracts you're going to see the same team for years to come ... so go to the grotto and light a candle that these guys get better ...

Aug 31, 2009 13:29 PM
rating: -2
 
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